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Bicentennial cake became an embarrassment

The giant 1976 Bicentennial Birthday Cake that would land the city in "The Guinness Book of Records" was like a lot of ideas hatched by city government in Baltimore.

While it gave the weary city beside the Patapsco a shot of well-needed national publicity, in the end it became a 35-ton embarrassment.

It ended with rats, rain and a public feud that pitted then-City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky and Comptroller Hyman Pressman against one another, with the taxpayers eventually picking up the tab.

Time will tell whether Labor Day weekend's Baltimore Grand Prix is a successful idea or another civic idea gone expensively bad, leaving its backers with, as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, "some splainin' to do."

The checkered flag has yet to drop on next month's Grand Prix, and already the lawyers are taking the first lap around the course in the wake of a $750,000 lawsuit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court by race founder Steven S. Wehner, who claims he has yet to be paid $575,000 by race organizers.

Meanwhile, Baltimoreans are complaining about trees being cut down, ugly bleachers blocking harbor views and downtown traffic congestion as workers repair roads in preparation for the race.

The race has even entered into next month's Democratic primary, with some mayoral candidates questioning Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's priorities.

Promoters project an estimated $70 million bonanza that will come from visitors opening their wallets for food and lodging over the Labor Day weekend.

Millions have been spent, which means a whole lot of crab cakes, hotel rooms and race tickets have to be sold for the city to recover its investment.

But potential danger lurks everywhere, and I mean particularly the meteorological variety.

It sounded like a great idea when in early May 1976, Orlinsky, the city's Bicentennial chairman, proposed the idea of baking a giant cake that would be the centerpiece of the city's bicentennial celebration.

The cake would be the biggest ever and would be the main attraction of "The Great American Celebration," which was to be a 12-hour national televised event.

When Orlinsky promised that the cost of this culinary confection would be recouped by selling 153,000 individually boxed slices of it for $2.25 a box, including shipping, the crowd roared its approval and it was off to the kitchen.

And then May ticked into June and by the end of the month, baker Harry Herman was furiously at work at Pier 3 on Pratt Street.

"The cake is made up of small individual cakes and excluding the cartons that each contain 50 small boxes, each weighing at least 7 ounces and holding at least three slices — the calculations showed there was some 73,400 pounds of the frosted white poundcake," said an article in The Baltimore Sun.

Herman was helped with the baking of thousands of 16-by-24-inch, 10-pound sheet cakes by the New Standard Bakery Co. of Philadelphia.

The finished cakes were then stuffed into a 51-by-24-foot plywood frame shaped like a map of the U.S., with Alaska and Hawaii as separate sections, that had been built aboard a 120-foot Army barge. The total weight of the cake was 31 tons.

Red, white and blue butter-cream icing had been applied to the outside of the plywood.

There were press reports circulating saying the Falstaffian City Council president, who had lost 90 pounds a year earlier in a crash diet, was tending a little toward the corpulent side, adding 10 pounds from nibbling on the cake.

All was looking good until July 1, when sudden thunderstorms washed 3,000 pounds of gooey icing into the harbor and soaked the barge.

The unexpected disaster caused one wag to observe that all the fish in "Baltimore harbor will come down with diabetes."

By July 3, with the rain-removed icing hastily reapplied, the barge was towed and anchored off Fort McHenry.

At midnight, after a spectacular fireworks display, a jubilant Orlinsky lit 200 electric candles on top of the cake in honor of the country's 200th birthday.

While Orlinsky sold the first cake to two 4-year-olds, Jimmy McNally and John Schumacher of Millersville, and a Boston department store purchased 5,000 slices to give away to their customers, the projected sales failed to materialize.

By July 7, some 17 tons of cake — or roughly 40,000 unsold cake slices — had to be thrown away because of rats and the rain, as barge and cake, now known as "Wally's Folly," languished at Pier 7.

A month later, Orlinsky asked the Board of Estimates to pick up the $50,000 cost for the cake to "put it in the black," and that's when civic watchdog Pressman had had enough.

At the Board of Estimates meeting, Orlinsky, nose-to-nose with Pressman, called the comptroller a "liar" and an "idiot" over his complaints about the financial loss to the city.

"It is a pity that politics have been allowed to destroy what has essentially been an affirmative, pleasant and happy occasion for many Baltimoreans," said Orlinsky.

Orlinsky quickly changed course and said he had presented no bill, and that's when Pressman waved a signed letter asking for as much.

"You should know by now Wally, that it's not easy to pull the wool over people's eyes," lectured Pressman. "You're trying to cover up your failure by trying to shift the blame to others. Why not be a man and admit it, Wally? You did a lousy job."

When the comptroller objected to being called a liar and asked for an apology, the City Council president replied by telling him he was a "guttersnipe as well."

In the end, the city footed the $70,000 bill for "Wally's Folly."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun